The family of an Osceola County woman is calling for accountability within the sheriff’s office, after she drowned in a retention pond while deputies stood on the shoreline just yards away.
Channel 9 investigative reporter Karla Ray obtained a review of the incident, in which the deputies were cleared of any policy violations. Still, the woman’s mother and sister both question why more wasn’t done to try to help her.
It happened in a pond at the Camden Town Square apartments in Kissimmee. The fountain was off at the time, and witnesses said Meryl Ann Smith was sitting on the hardware, singing, at around 8:30 at night.
The initial information given to deputies by dispatchers is that she was possibly intoxicated or mentally ill, but they still repeatedly called for her to swim back to them instead of going in after her. At one point, the deputies threatened to arrest her if she did not swim back to them, and that’s when she disappeared from their sight. She was later declared dead from drowning.
“I want justice for my daughter,” Meryl’s mother, Melany Perkins, said. “I don’t want this to ever happen to anybody else.”
Labor Day weekend will mark a year from when investigators say Meryl Ann, who her family believes was suffering a mental health crisis related to a brain tumor, somehow made her way out to the base of the fountain and never made it back to shore.
“The fact is, it was two hours that they were waiting for her to swim,” Perkins said.
The sun was already down the night deputies were called out to a report of an intoxicated or mentally ill person in the middle of the pond, and it was an hour after the initial call that one of the investigators on scene started communicating with the woman via his squad car’s PA system.
“This is the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office speaking to you, ma’am, in the water,” the deputy is heard saying on dash camera video. “Do you need help? Swim back to the shore, please, let us know if you need help.”
After a few minutes of watching her swim around, ignoring their calls, the deputy’s messaging changed.
“Ma’am, this is the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office, we see that you’re moving around, you need to come back to shore, if you do not come back to shore now, you will be arrested.”
“It should have been obvious, no matter who it was, that there was a person who is in danger,” Meryl Ann’s sister, Molly Smith, said. “And in those situations, by threatening with legal recourse, if the individual doesn’t swim back to shore, that’s putting them at risk.”
Molly Smith reviewed all the records from that night, which confirm after deputies lost sight of Meryl Ann, it was another hour or so before Ag Marine deputies arrived with an airboat. By then, it was too late.
“Quite frankly, I feel like they were very negligent, and they should have done more. And had they done that, my sister would probably still be here today,” Molly Smith said.
We spent weeks asking Osceola County Sheriff Marcos Lopez whether he would talk to us about why his deputies did not go in after Meryl Ann.
Lopez sent us the following statement:
“Deputies responded to a call regarding an intoxicated person in a pond. 911 callers had reported a woman singing and splashing in the middle of the lake. Callers specifically stated she did not appear to be drowning. Once on scene, deputies were able to see Ms. Smith pull her entire body out of the water and place herself onto the fountain located in the middle of the pond. Knowing she had already been in the pond for at least 15 minutes and watching her physically position herself out of the water and onto the fountain, it did not appear she was at risk for drowning. Deputies repeatedly gave Ms. Smith verbal commands to come to shore. Unfortunately, Ms. Smith ignored these commands. When deputies lost sight of her, they assumed she was intentionally trying to hide from them to avoid having to come to shore. Deputies then utilized their binoculars, flashlights, and the spotlight from their marked patrol cars to search for her for an additional 34 minutes. They also contacted residents to ascertain if anyone saw her exit the pond. When her whereabouts were still unknown, an airboat and helicopter was requested to come to the scene. Her drowning is the worst type of tragedy and our hearts go out to the family and friends of Ms. Smith.”